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Elections board to buy optical scan voting machines/2-8

By Mary Lolli   Journal-News   09 February 2005

Butler County Bureau

HAMILTON ? Butler County voters could be using new voting machines by the November general election, but it won?t be the voting system local officials had hoped to implement.

Facing an ultimatum from Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, the county?s board of elections on Friday agreed to contract for the purchase of ?optical scan? voting machines.

The board also unanimously agreed to notify Blackwell that the ?optical scan? voting system was not its preferred method of electronic voting.

Rather, Butler officials last year tested and approved the use of touch screen voting machines in order to meet a federal mandate calling for replacing punch card balloting with an electronic voting system.

In January, Butler?s choice became moot when Blackwell issued a directive that only paper-based optical scan systems would be offered as the state?s primary voting system.

Blackwell said his decision was driven, in part, by congressional Substitute House Bill 262, which requires new electronic voting systems also create a paper record of votes cast.

Although manufacturers of touch screen systems have been working to develop that paper component for their system, Blackwell said federal funding for new electronic voting systems will not cover the cost of d touch screen systems.

Additionally, Blackwell expressed concerns that other electronic systems would not be ready in time to meet a 2006 federal deadline.

?In order for the state of Ohio to be in compliance with both federal and state law within existing funding, precinct count optical scan voting systems are the only viable option,? Blackwell wrote in his directive.

With that, he gave local boards of elections until Wednesday to pick their own vendor to provide the machines or his office would a vendor ?utilizing a random ion process.?

?The board basically had two choices ? pick the vendor we want to work with or let the state pick for us,? said Butler Board of Elections Deputy Director Betty McGary.

With the optical scan system, voters will mark their ions on a paper ballot which will then be fed into a ballot scanner at the polling precinct.

If there?s a problem with the ballot, such as an over-vote or under-vote, the voter will know immediately and will be able to correct or cast a new ballot, depending upon the problem encountered.

?If the federal government thought people had trouble using the punch card ballot, what do they expect will happen when voters have to fill in little circles on their ballots?? McGary asked.

Elections Director Robert Mosketti also is less that enthused about Blackwell?s decision, noting that it will make elections more complicated because, despite Blackwell?s concerns, touch screen systems will have to be used for disabled voters.

?We essentially will have two different electronic voting systems operating within the county,? Mosketti said.

Although the touch screen system doesn?t yet create a paper record, Mosketti said votes cast via touch screen can be transferred to the optical scan reader.

Also at issue is the number of new voting machines that will be funded.

According to Mosketti, the county?s 2,500 punch card machines will be replaced with about 1,600 optical scan machines. Additionally, the county will have to purchase one touch screen machine for each of 178 polling locations in order to accommodate disabled voters.

But elections officials are concerned that 1,600 optical scan machines may not be enough to handle the massive increase in registered voters during the past year.

?We?re going to have to split precincts this year because of the increase in registered voters,? McGary said. ?They?re using 2000 census figures to determine the number of machines we can purchase despite the fact that we will have 60 additional precincts in operation.? The board opted to purchase its new equipment from the Diebold company, which provided the touch screen system the county tested last year.

Mosketti did not have an estimate for the cost of the new system locally. However, Blackwell?s office estimates the cost of the new system statewide will be $100 million.

County Commissioner Michael Fox also weighed in on the issue, giving a lengthy address to board members and asking them to consider seek a delay in implementation of the new system. He also requested they make certain that any new voting equipment purchased is manufactured in the U.S.

On Monday, Fox followed up with a personal letter to Blackwell?s office.

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